Story of Black Rail Workers Inspired by Historical Events told in New Drama “The Porter”
Danielle Sanders, Chicago Defender Managing Editor
Set in the early 1920s, “The Porter” follows the journeys of train porters who hustle, dream, cross borders, and pursue their ambitions in the fight for liberation as they traveled the railways across North America. It is a gripping story of empowerment and idealism that highlights the moment when railway workers from both Canada and the United States joined together to give birth to the world’s first Black union. Set primarily in Montreal, Chicago, and Detroit as the world rebuilds after the First World War, THE PORTER depicts the Black community in St. Antoine, Montreal – known, at the time, as the “Harlem of the North.”
THE PORTER follows train porters Junior Massey and Zeke Garrett and their friends and families as a tragedy on the job sets them on starkly different paths to better lives and on a direct collision course with each other. One chooses to exploit the racist system by getting involved in crime and bootlegging and the other wants to inspire change by forming a union. The result will test their friendship and their choices could put each of their lives in jeopardy.
The series premiered on May 5th and features ensemble cast members Aml Ameen, Ronnie Rowe Jr., Mouna Traoré, Loren Lott, Olunike Adeliyi, Luke Bilyk, Sabryn, Paul Essiembre, Arnold Pinnock, Bruce Ramsay, and Luc Roderique. Also starring in Alfre Woodard, who also serves as an executive producer for the drama.
“The Porter” is inspired by the story of Pullman Porters. The Pullman Porters played a crucial role in the Great Migration with many helping to deliver the Chicago Defender Newspaper to Black residents in the south. The Chicago Defender newspaper detailed articles highlighting a better life with better jobs, housing, and opportunities in the North. Pullman Porters would often sneak Chicago Defender newspapers on the trains and deliver them to local businesses in the south to be distributed to Black southerners. It is estimated that between 1916 and 1970 more than half a million Black people migrated from the south to Chicago.
Intertwined in “The Porter” is a historical story of how the first Black labor union was created and the pitfalls of crime, prohibition, and racism in the early 1920s. Pullman Porters were deeply respected in the community but faced racism and economic hardships at work. In 1925, they formed a Union, “The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters” with activist, A. Phillip Randolph as their president. It was the first Black labor union in the country. They fought for higher wages, overtime pay, fairer hours, and workplace safety.
BET+’s “The Porter” not only explores the story of the life of a Porter but also the families they left behind while at work. The often-untold story of the women behind the porters is explored in the film with complex and three-dimensional characters played by Mouna Traore as Marlene, a black Cross Nurse, Loren Lott as Lucy a nightclub performer, Alfre Woodard as a brothel owner, and Oluniké Adeliyi as Queenie, a powerful Chicago crime boss. Crime, equality, colorism, and prejudice are just a few of the impactful themes depicted in the historical drama.
The Chicago Defender spoke with Mouna Traore (Marlene) and Loren Lott (Lucy) about their role in “The Porter” and why some of the themes in the BET+ drama still ring true today.
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